...And an Artist Is an Artist Is an Artist

By Thomson, Lynn M. | American Theatre, September 1998 | Go to article overview

...And an Artist Is an Artist Is an Artist


Thomson, Lynn M., American Theatre


I agree with the headline of the article signed by certain members of New Dramatists ("An Author Is an Author Is an Author," July/Aug. '98). But remember, in the Copyright Act only one word - author - is used for anyone who creates copyrightable expression. Every playwright is an author, but not every author is a playwright. A sculptor is an author. Picasso was an author. A haberdasher can be an author. And, yes, so can a director or a dramaturg, if they meet the standard of "significant" and "expression" (not "ideas"). Most dramaturgs, by the way, do "ideas."

However, in Rent, at the invitation of Jonathan Larson, I - the dramaturg - wrote. I was deemed by a court (whose precise words I quote) to have been a "significant force" in turning the "unproducible" workshop script "into the hit that Rent became." My contributions were judged "copyrightable" and "major." If an author is an author is an author, then I am an author. Why aren't the signers of this article fighting for me?

As the title goes, so goes the article, which relies on assumptions not restrained by information. The entire argument swings from the conviction that any addition from a collaborator is copyrightable, and therefore every playwright is vulnerable to co-authorship. Not so. The law absolutely recognizes the difference between "de minimis" (not significant) and "non de minimis" (significant). Those suggestions at rehearsal? Not copyrightable. And certainly, ideas are not at all copyrightable. Moreover, I concur: Who knows where a speech comes from. Again, the law protects authors.

Another false assumption, pertaining especially to dramaturgs: We do not, as standard practice, want to participate in playwrights' royalties. We prefer compensation from producers. The Dramatists Guild, in newsletters and legal briefs, conjured scenarios of predatory dramaturgs, but the image is solely the Guild's own invention. They created the enemy they fought.

Another myth lurking in the article is the conviction that my prevailing in the suit would change the legal rights of dramaturgs. Not so. (Even American Theatre printed a retraction when it incorrectly reported this windmill.) I have issued a public statement about this matter and a federal judge underscored my position: My lawsuit challenges no one's rights.

The article confidently ends with that old saw, "If you want compensation and credit, write your own play." But that saw cuts both ways. If you want compensation and credit for the whole play, then write the whole play or at least the vast majority of it; or buy what you want to own, like the rest of the world does. High ideals are dandy, but isn't this really about who cashes the check? Neither "authorship" nor "collaboration" should be a method of appropriating work not your own.

For historical context, the article offers the conviction that American theatre has "always acknowledged ... the authorial autonomy of the playwright." Sorry, also not so. Plays in production (and plays were generally not published) were not even recognized as copyrightable until 1856. Before O'Neill, writers were lucky if they made it into the rehearsal room. They had little control over their work, unless, as was common, the writer was also the lead actor or the director or the producer or all of the above: think David Belasco, George M. Cohan. The Dramatists Guild was not formed until the '20s, and it was founded then to fight the usual deal that, once produced, plays were owned by their producers, who were selling these hotcakes to the film industry. Throughout the 19th century, writers were either paid small flat fees no matter what the producer earned, or sometimes received payment on the "third performance" (and often the script did not survive beyond performance number two). …

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